Provo • Joe Sampson looked out across Brigham Young University’s lush, green football practice field Monday night, in the direction of LaVell Edwards Stadium, where he had started and shined in the Cougars’ 30-6 win over Washington State last Thursday.
Mount Timpanogos towered off in the distance, and the sun was just beginning to set on another gorgeous early fall day in Provo.
Sampson’s long path to Y.
2006 » Played prep football at Oakland’s Skyline High
2007 » Walked on at an Oakland-area junior college, never played
2008 » Played freshman season at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif.
2009 » Recorded 72 tackles as a sophomore at College of San Mateo (Calif.)
2010 » Sat out football season to get academic work in order
2011 » Part-time player at BYU had 23 tackles, saw extensive action as a nickelback
2012 » Started at free safety in Cougars’ 30-6 win over Washington St.
About that time, it dawned on the Cougars’ senior safety, for about the 100th time, that he is far from the place he grew up: the drug-ridden and violence-filled streets of Oakland, Calif.
"Man, I am so comfortable here," he said. "I’m just real, real comfortable."
For the 5-foot-10, 203-pound Sampson, the journey from a boyhood neighborhood he described as dangerous, rough and ridden with drugs to major college football at one of the most conservative, buttoned-down schools in the country has been difficult as well. But now that he’s here for a second straight season, he is determined to make the most of it.
"I am on track to graduate next spring [with a degree in geography], and I have put myself into a situation where I can get a shot [at playing professional football]," he said. "I am just going to keep working as hard as I can, and hopefully everything will fall into place."
So far, so good.
At BYU, there have been a few hiccups along the way — like having to miss four practices early in preseason camp for disciplinary reasons — but for the most part Sampson has flourished in Provo, after BYU coaches recruited him out of the College of San Mateo at the behest of his cousin, former BYU starting cornerback Brian Logan.
"Joe is a good kid, a super kid," said defensive backs coach Nick Howell. "He has done really well since he has been here. Really well. He is fun to be around. The guys like him. They trust him. They want him on the team. He has been nothing but positive here."
It was getting here that was hard, starting when Sampson was a youngster playing Pop Warner football in Oakland. Somehow, he says, he managed to mostly avoid the "bad things" that ensnared many of his childhood friends. He credits his strong faith, activities such as sports that kept him off the streets and the guidance of his parents, who separated when he was 18 — but not before instilling in him the importance of getting an education.
"The environment, the neighborhoods, made it rough, but to me, that is all I knew, so it was kind of normal," Sampson said. "There was violence, drugs, the stuff you would see every day, the whole fast life. You grew up really fast. That’s the main thing. Luckily, I had sports — which is the quickest way out of there."
Sampson did not take a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, before graduating from Oakland’s Skyline High, so he wasn’t highly recruited. He played at Foothill College across the bay in Los Altos, Calif., in 2008, then transferred to San Mateo for his sophomore season, at Logan’s urging.
After leading the juco-power Bulldogs with 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups, and making two interceptions, Sampson had plenty of Division I offers but he again had to sit out of football in 2010 to get some academic work done. Many schools forgot about him, but BYU and Utah kept in touch, and Sampson basically had to pick between the rivals when signing day came in February of 2011.
"My dad [Larry Sampson] came on my visit with me to BYU," Joe Sampson said. "He didn’t even look at it as a Mormon school. He just said, ‘This is a good place to be.’ He noticed there were fewer distractions and I could stay focused on what I need to do while I am here. He was all for it."
And so was Logan, who still lives in Provo, works for BYUtv, and talks with Sampson almost every day.
"Brian and my dad have helped me a lot," Sampson said. "My dad, I don’t know how he knew, but he had a lot of [football] knowledge. He would pay attention to NFL players, what they did, and pass it along. Even if I had a great game, he would point out things I did wrong, things I could improve on. I think that has helped a lot."
Howell said Sampson’s "football savvy" is what sets him apart. Sampson had four tackles and a quarterback hurry against Washington State. And he recorded 23 tackles last season, along with a fumble return for a touchdown and a game-saving interception.
"He makes a lot of plays. He understands the game, and has a really good feel for it. Then, he’s a tremendous tackler and doesn’t get out of position," Howell said. "We’re happy he’s here."
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